more than a flash of genius

certain things become so strongly associated with an era that they become timeless. this is certainly true of nils strinning's shelf system, string®, which was designed in 1949. it may seem strange that something as simple and humble as this little dainty light shelf with its thin side panels has become one of the twentieth century's foremost design icons.

the reasons are several; the thin packaging is simple and cheap to transport, the shelf is easy to assemble, the shelves can be quickly repositioned, shelves of various depths can be combined and books are held in place by the side panels, it is stable and can be extended in all directions. whether the wall surface is large or small string® is functional. it's the side panel which gives string® its character. elegant and clean-limbed are the coloured threads, a slender "ladder" ascending the wall, ingenious, variable, flexible... it's not strange that post-war europeans, who were thirsting for freedom, adored string®. particularly the young, those who had begun to be called teenagers.

if it hadn't been for a competition announced by sweden's largest publishing house, bonnier, in 1949 it would probably not have been set into production. bonnier realised that if the swedish people were to begin purchasing books they would have to have somewhere to keep them. the shelf was to be affordable, simple to transport and easy to assemble. just such a shelf had existed in the thoughts of nils strinning. the competition became a reason to put thought into action and he won, of course, first prize.

everything has a prehistory and this one is about laziness and wire. drying dishes was a time-consuming enterprise before the days of the dishwasher. air drying is more hygienic than using a dishcloth but then a practical and orderly dish rack is required. the elfa dish rack became nils strinning's first successful invention in 1946. three years later, together with the producer arne lydmar, he had solved the problem of how to coat the steel wire with plastic, yes, nils strinning is the father of the entire elfa-system with his wire baskets which are to be found in most wardrobes today, like the wore baskets on the kitchen sink cover. nothing is too modest that it can't be made better. this is how you could summarise nils strinning's view on life. through him the inventors demand for function is combined with the aesthetician's feeling for proportion and detail.

kerstin wickman, professor of design and handcraft history, the university college of arts, crafts & design, stockholm